Where should I sit? Who starts eating first?
Which part of the fish is considered the best?
How can I show respect when toasting with others?
Let us help you make sense of it all.

Dinners in China can be huge fun, but they’re also fraught with danger. One false move and you’ve offended people without even knowing it. Handled well, however, your local hosts will note your appreciation for Chinese customs, which gives them big face and shows you aren’t just another ignorant foreigner traipsing through China.

How important is the dining ritual to a Chinese? Even a newborn is fully booked with dinner gatherings, i.e. one-month anniversary dinner, double-month anniversary dinner, 100-day anniversary dinner, one-year birthday dinner, etc. Everything happens at the dinner table: strangers become friends, friends become enemies and enemies become friends; boyfriends are scrutinized and receive final approval to become a son-in-law; contracts for massive investments are confirmed; and agreements nearly there fall apart. All this happens against the backdrop of delicious foods, savory wines and elegant china-wares with plenty of subtlety and face guessing games.

Here are some great ways to show respect for others, plus guidelines to get you going in the right direction:

China Simplified: Chinese Dinner Etiquette - Seating

The dance starts upon arrival, people nudging each other towards certain seats, trying to be modest and showing respect for one another. The highest seat faces the door, second best on its right, third best on its left. Don’t go there unless you are guided to do so. Play along, resist a little.

A plate of sizzling hot ribs arrives, landing directly in front of you. You’re famished. Go ahead and grab one? Not yet!

Turn the rotating table clockwise and let others (especially the top seated person) have a bite. Don’t panic, it’ll come back to you. Nobody wants to be the person taking the last piece on any plate.

China Simplified: Chinese Dinner Etiquette

By now, your hosts may recognize your modesty and force you to start the whole fish when it arrives on the table. Where on the fish do you dig in? General consensus holds the best is the upper belly, second best is upper back, and so on. Avoid those prime locations at first.

China Simplified: Chinese Dinner Etiquette - Toasting

What’s this secret game going on? The modesty dance continues! When two glasses clink, how high people hold their glasses shows hierarchy. Sometimes they go lower and lower until they crash into the table (albeit a worst case scenario). When the host toasts you, keep his glass higher.

These insights hold true at most dinners with hierarchy, such as corporate dinners with bosses, meals with clients and multi-generation family gatherings. Learn to recognize the regional variations as you progress. And among friends, all protocol often gets thrown out the window. Yeah!

Have any interesting dinner experiences to share?
We invite you to add them below for others to enjoy.
Happy eating!

  • datou1

    So what if I’m the guest of the boss? Should I hold my glass below his? After a few I usually lose track…

  • definitely lower. even with people of relatively equal levels, both trying to go lower out of respect, after many bottles they’ll practically crash their glasses downward into the table to show modesty.

  • ScottLoar

    Basic Law: When you touch a bit of food with your chopsticks that bit is yours. Do not, do not use your chopsticks as prongs to push aside bits and pieces on the communal plate as if hunting for a choice part. I’ve watched as some foreign “guests” pick and prod their way through the main dishes, picking up then discarding as if at a rummage sale.

    Show common civility by not drinking unless you are toasting or being toasted in turn, don’t hog the dish, don’t express disgust or surprise when offered unusual or seemingly unappetizing foods (remember that sashimi was once held in disgust in the West until it became fashionable) , and note that civilized man has always confirmed that whole fish is served with head and tail still on; otherwise you deserve McNuggets.